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Brooke Astor (1902-2007)

It was difficult for me to type that headline just now, because she was always and forever "Mrs. Astor" to me.

Like so many who are paying tribute to her this week, I cannot claim to have known Mrs. Astor well; and yet, when I flip through my remaining snapshot-memories, I feel a sadness akin to when my grandmother passed away.

My first snapshot, sepia at the edges, dates from three decades ago, when my career in the New York City nonprofit world was getting underway. I worked for a wonderful organization in Union Square called Teachers & Writers Collaborative that sent authors into the public schools for residencies to teach poetry and creative writing to kids.

Infrastructure: There but for the grace of God...

I'd never been to Minneapolis, Minnesota in my entire life.

Then, last summer, I was invited to give a talk at the gorgeous, glass-sheathed Public Library on my new book, The American Revelation: Ten Ideals that Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War; and this past spring, I delivered a keynote address, on the Marshall Plan and Its Meanings, 1947-2007, at the 100th annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.What a great city, and what friendly, welcoming people. During the course of my two stays in Minneapolis, I had the opportunity to get out and about, and to meet many players in the arts and culture community, philanthropists, corporate donors, and civic activists. I learned that Minneapolis has the highest percentage of volunteerism of any city in America, and now I see why.

It all started with Thomas Edison

Back in the day, as they like to say now, when I was writing Edison: Inventing the Century (Hyperion, 1995, University of Chicago Press, 2001), driving every Friday from my home in Upper Montclair all the way down Valley Road to the Edison National Historic Site , sitting at a rough-hewn laboratory table, leafing through thousands of drawings in The Master's laboratory notebooks -- little did I know how inflammatory my next book would be.

It wasn't until I journeyed into the Big City to the Berg Collection at The New York Public Library in Manhattan and asked to see copies of the pocket journals of naturalist John Burroughs that I hit upon a dirty little secret -- transcripts of antisemitic fireside conversations between Edison and his close friend Henry Ford on their summer camping trips in the Adirondacks during and after World War I.

Home sweet home, except when it isn't

On my way to work, once I hit Bloomfield Avenue, I like to take the scenic route to Montclair State University (where I teach American History; more of that once school starts in six weeks) heading northeast on Upper Mountain all the way over to Normal Avenue.

It's the early morning and so I listen to the BBC World Service turned down rather low as befits the English accent of the news announcer. Under a dappled green canopy, I speed by noble, prepossessing mansions on both sides. My attention is inexorably drawn to the houses on my left -- or what's left of them.

Summer reading...but many aren't -- read this title aloud for full effect

You will shortly discover why I needed to get this blog posted before the Harry Potter release.

And one important point before I begin: this is not a cranky 'screed' - just an observation based upon a quiet, informal survey I've been conducting so far this summer on a nice, moderately-crowded but never too congested, typical (un-named) beach Down The Shore where I go -- sometimes with my wife, sometimes alone -- for R&R day-trips and a fish sandwich and large lemonade. Actually I am heading down there this morning as soon as I finish this blog. The clouds are lifting and so is the humidity....

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